How Can One Regulate Themselves After experiencing trauma
Here are some exercises especially curated by Sadia Saeed who is a trauma informed psychotherapist, to help you deal with trauma and emotional overwhelm. These are simple exercises that will help your nervous system to regulate and get back in the window of tolerance.
Please do these exercises in the serial order as given. Once you have been through all of them, you may find that one or two especially work well for you. Please repeat those regularly. These are not one time exercises but regular practices which will help you feel emotionally balanced.
Grounding & Creating Support – Exercise 1/5
Grounding Through 3 Senses – Exercise 2/5
Self Touch -
Using Breath to Reset The Vagal Tone - Exercise 4/5
Access a Safe Memory -
What is Trauma?
Trauma refers to a response to a deeply disturbing event that overwhelms and exceeds an individual’s ability to cope. Such a powerful emotional response can often take place when one is exposed to distressing events such as (but not limited to) a war, accident, unexpected loss of a loved one or any form of abuse. The experience of trauma often results in the creation of feelings of helplessness or powerlessness, diminished sense of self, confusion, loss of control and pain.
The way a person perceives the event plays a critical role in determining what maybe traumatic for the person. Moreover, every person has their own unique way of processing a traumatic experience and what maybe deeply disturbing to one individual may not necessarily lead to the same level of distress for the other.
As mentioned above, the experience of trauma is unique and sometimes symptoms develop in a short span of time or could develop gradually. Additionally, some people may experience many symptoms while other experience few. Keeping this in mind some commonly occurring responses and symptoms often associated with trauma include :
Vicarious trauma refers to a situation in which one is indirectly exposed to trauma by watching it, listening to a survivor’s account, reading about it etc. Such exposure is also capable of inducing a fear reaction in us. With the increase in the number of resources today such as accessibility to new channels, internet and social media, all of which provides extensive coverage and live footages of traumatic events, the exposure to vicarious trauma has also increased. While this may help in keeping us updated, it also exposes us to what could be ‘vicarious trauma’.
Post-traumatic stress is a common, normal and adaptive response to the experience of a traumatic or stressful event. This is mainly because the brain is wired to pump more blood, tense muscles and induce faster breathing when the body is under stress. This ‘fight or flight’ response allows the body to deal with challenge in the environment and temporarily shuts down the ‘rest and digest’ function till the threat goes away. Therefore this response is a ‘normal reflex’ during and sometimes even after the experience of a trauma.
Some symptoms of PTSD are as follows:
In moments of stress, the body responds by activation of sympathetic nervous systems fight or flight response. This maybe experienced in the form of increased planning, racing thoughts, fast paced breathing, muscular tensions, gastrointestinal changes etc. This the nervous systems way of mobilizing resources to help the individual navigate the stressor by preparing it to either ‘face it’ or ‘flee from it’.
Once the stressor is no longer present, the nervous system regulates itself by returning back to homeostasis or ‘normal’. The person is able to be in their ‘window of tolerance’ a space where they can feel grounded, present and can manage their emotions. On a particular day one may experience many such cycles where they find themselves outside the ‘window’ but eventually are able to return to it. For example, when running late for an interview one may feel very worked up, however once the interview is done there is feeling of relaxation.
The nervous system responds in an exaggerated manner when the body experiences trauma.
Traumatic events push the nervous system outside its ability to regulate itself.
- For some, the system gets stuck in the “on” or hyperarousal state as can be seen in the image below, and the person is overstimulated and unable to calm down completely. Anxiety, anger, restlessness, panic, and hyperactivity can all result when you stay in this ready-to-react mode. This physical state of hyperarousal is stressful for every system in the body.
- In other people, the nervous system is stuck in the “off” or hypo arousal state as seen in the image below resulting in depression, numbness, disconnection, fatigue, and lethargy. The state of hypo arousal is also an unhealthy state as the body is in a zone of very low energy.
Due to the experience of trauma people can alternate between these highs and lows and find it difficult to return to the window of tolerance. This results in difficulty with staying in the ‘present’ and experiencing ‘dissociative symptoms’ such as flashback, intrusive memories etc.
With the right kind of support and psychological help, the trauma can be processed and the window can be expanded so as to help cope with challenges.
The pandemic has been a collective experience of multiple stressors. All of us may have experienced a certain extent of this vicariously while many others may have had actual exposure to traumatic experiences such as prolonged periods of isolation, sudden and unexpected loss of loved ones, loss of livelihood, exposure to abuse/domestic violence. Additionally, our nervous system may constantly be on alert in an attempt to protect oneself from the uncertainties involved resulting in prolonged activation of the flight or fight system.